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How to Incorporate Natural Environment Teaching in ABA


When a lot of people hear the term, “ABA”, they think it only includes teaching at the table with discrete trials. This is not true. ABA has expanded to incorporate many, many different teaching procedures, including natural environment teaching (NET).  Today, we’re talking all about how to incorporate natural environment teaching in ABA into our practice. 

I’ve been in this field long enough that I actually remember when natural environment teaching in ABA became a formal thing. A consultant came into our center and we set up whiteboards all over the walls so that we could write down goals during natural environment teaching. 

We all thought that natural environment teaching was going to be so easy because it’s just play. But it was so challenging for so many people. We were so used to structured teaching at the table.  When we brought it away from the table, we found it really difficult. And so did a lot of our learners.

Natural Environment Teaching on a whiteboard

What is Natural Environment Teaching?

Natural environment teaching in ABA (often referred to as ‘NET’) is a term that’s used when skills are taught or generalized within the natural environment.  We’re teaching our learners so many skills, but if they can’t use those skills in their real life, then how good are the skills that we’ve taught them? This is the reason that NET is so important.

When I was first trained in ABA, I was told to generalize skills to the natural environment. The question is, why should we generalize to the natural environment when we can just teach in the natural environment in the first place? We’re talking about a paradigm shift here.

Some people would argue, including myself, that we don’t have as many learning opportunities or trials when we’re teaching in the natural environment. But we could also argue that teaching in NET is more meaningful. And a lot of the time it’s more motivating. If our learners are more motivated in NET, and things are meaningful, then we don’t need as many teaching trials.  

Also, when we’re teaching skills in NET, that last generalization component of the teaching step can be eliminated because the skills are already generalized. Therefore, natural environment teaching in ABA could actually lead to faster skill acquisition! 

Here’s a free data sheet to track natural environment teaching in ABA. Download it below!

Benefits of NET

Teaching in the natural environment is not synonymous with free play.  Children should not just get to do whatever they want. NET is intentional. We have to think about developing play activities to target learning objectives. Get creative!

Many times I’ll still use whiteboards for NET programs.  I find it really helps to focus instructors on relevant goals.  By writing structured goals and examples on the whiteboard above the play area, it decreases the likelihood of unstructured playtime. Another benefit is that clipboards become unnecessary.  Instead, educators can glance up at the whiteboard to check goals and then continue playing.

NET doesn’t have to be so formal either. It can happen spontaneously during break time.  For instance, if something is taught at the table, we can engage learners during breaks in a really fun activity that helps generalize those skills.  Facilitating this is okay.  The more those opportunities are created in the natural environment, the faster students will learn and generalize skills.  Who knows, everyone may have a little fun too along the way! 

How to Start Natural Environment Teaching In ABA

NET should be really fun and not feel like work to the student. Don’t just demand a series of answers to questions. Stop asking questions.  Comment.  Comment.  Comment.  Model a lot. Then pause and see whether or not the student can fill in those pauses with responses.  When they do, celebrate!  

Another great way to start NET is with manding. When it’s naturally snack time or it’s naturally play time, teach your learner to request for items that are appropriate for those times.  Requesting away from a therapy table can definitely be classified as natural environment teaching.

If you find that data collection is hindering play, or that you’re not getting in enough trials for percentage data, then think about a different way of collecting data.  Fill out a rating scale or collect probe data. That way you’re not busy with a clipboard or tablet and you can really focus on meaningful play.  

Get your free NET data sheet to start taking data when teaching in the natural environment below!

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